It may not yet be at the forefront of state politics, but locally, the issue of Connecticut’s lack of affordable housing is getting more important. Mayors and other municipal leaders across the state are focusing more on increasing their communities’ stock of workforce housing and are trying to do it in a better way, some of them said at last week’s Mayors’ Forum on Affordable Housing.

The Connecticut Mortgage Bankers Association sponsored the event at the Aqua Turf Country Club in Plantsville on May 18. Mayors from New Haven, Norwalk, Norwich and Torrington, as well as the first selectman of Windham, addressed a crowd of Realtors, mortgage brokers and other businesspeople.

Although some of the officials talked about the struggles involved with increasing affordable housing, others said they were pleased with the strides their towns have made.

One of the greatest successes in Norwalk, for example, has been that community leaders and businesspeople have developed a political consensus that the development of workforce housing is an important goal, said Mayor Alex Knopp.

“A key part of it has been the support of the business community,” he said. “Overall in Norwalk, I’ve been very pleased we’ve had a consensus.”

And the city has implemented some of its goals with public/private partnerships to develop more affordable housing, Knopp added.

In Norwich, across the state from Norwalk, the proximity to the casinos has helped.

“Our success comes from luck,” said Mayor Arthur L. Lathrop.

But the city also has worked toward using smart growth in developing new housing stock, he said.

“Our housing growth has been smart-growth oriented,” Lathrop said.

Lathrop noted that he recently made a map of the city’s housing stock and found that it is being developed at a healthy pace. Much of the new development centered in pockets of mixed-income housing, he said.

He estimated that the city has about two more years of heavy growth ahead of it. After that, most of the open land left is ledge and is unbuildable. The growth has been fast, but good for the city. Even the affordable housing growth has been a “revenue bonanza,” Lathrop said.

Conveyance taxes are a big part of that, he noted. Norwich was one of almost 20 cities in the state that was allowed to pass a super conveyance tax, or one that is more expensive than conveyance taxes in other cities and towns. Real estate taxes also have played a big part, with new growth bringing in $3 million a year, exclusive of the cost of the increase of schoolchildren.

“Because of good planning and conservative zoning, our community is comfortable with the growth of housing,” Lathrop said. “All of us are seeing rapid change.”

‘A Work in Progress’

In other cities and towns, growth hasn’t been that easy.

Torrington is the only urban area in Litchfield County, and, as an aging mill town with a per capita income of $28,000, has had its share of trouble meeting the need for affordable housing.

“Torrington is a community that is in flux,” said Mayor Owen J. Quinn.

One of the city’s greatest successes has been a corporation it formed – a spin-off of the housing authority – that has successfully bought, rehabbed and sold aging two- and three-family homes. The city is also in the midst of a revitalization that officials hope will make it a destination for the arts.

But much of the growth of the city’s housing stock is happening on the outskirts of town, a trend that is the opposite of smart growth.

“[Smart growth is] a concept that comes very hard to Litchfield County, but we’re realizing it’s important to Torrington,” Quinn said. “We’re a work in progress Â… We’ve been behind the 8-ball for a long time and we’re trying to right that ship.”

Arts also have been an important draw for the town of Windham, where developers are changing one of the city’s old buildings into apartments and studios for artists.

One of the state’s largest cities is facing different problems regarding the development of affordable housing. In New Haven, there is no open space left to develop housing, said Mayor John DeStefano. Its housing stock is already 75 percent rental, with about a third of that as Section 8 or public housing. The city will always be the center for affordable housing in south central Connecticut, he said.

But there are several successes that have led to the city’s healthy affordable housing market and that DeStefano said he is particularly proud of in New Haven. One is that about 1,200 people live in the city’s downtown – a big reason it is vibrant today. About half of those are students, but the other half are full-time residents.

New Haven also has been successful in breaking up large public housing complexes and turning them into mixed-income units. One former public housing complex, Elm Haven, now has 400 units of mixed-income housing. The school system in the city also has helped the housing market, in part because school choice is a possibility.

To solve the statewide housing crisis, there needs to be a plan of conservation, DeStefano said – one that needs to address how much housing and what kind should go where, how new developments measure against the infrastructure that is already there and where and how economic growth should occur. The statewide plan should also make regional planning meaningful, he added.n